Bernie Sanders is a good man who unfortunately did no one a favor, including himself, by branding himself a socialist. He isn’t one according to the standard definition of socialism, which is a system where the government owns the means of production (such as factories, agricultural fields, and hospitals). Whether Bernie says it or not, he believes in capitalism as an economic system. He just wants to distribute the wealth generated by capitalism more fairly.
For decades, capitalist governments in Western Europe have been ensuring everyone has healthcare, access to vocational training, various safety nets, and often free college. My husband has been working with companies in the capitalist systems of Europe for the last 40 years. The more progressive ones have often been called “welfare states,” a label Europeans embrace to communicate demonstrated concern over the welfare of their people. (That label would be a disastrous brand in the U.S. because of our “raise yourself by your bootstraps” cultural norm.) Europeans pay for social benefits through high and progressive taxation of individuals. Their corporate tax rates are not exceptionally high so that their businesses can compete globally.
These European nations embraced capitalism because experiments in socialism consistently failed (e.g., the USSR, China in the 50s-70s, France at times). China has also moved towards capitalism, albeit without political freedom. There is no doubt that capitalism – which consists of mostly private ownership of capital and free markets subject to regulation, designed to maximize profit – produces more total wealth than any other economic system. Recall the shock of Eastern Germans when the Berlin Wall fell.
In contrast to the more-enlightened capitalist European countries, we in the U.S. have watched (sadly for many of us) a decline in social fairness over the last 40 years. This decline has not been due to capitalism per se but rather to a failure of the government to reasonably invest in public goods and distribute the income that capitalism (including trade) produce. Over the last 40 years, our government has increasingly sold itself to business interests and right-wing social interests. Forty years ago, lobbyists numbered in the hundreds. Today, there are over 15,000 in D.C. alone spending over $6 billion outright on their efforts. The lobbyists’ clients secure financial returns many times over.
As billionaire Warren Buffet laments, his effective tax rate is less than his secretary’s. Buffet doesn’t blame this on capitalism. It’s not his job to set tax policy. Only the government decides how to “split the pie” and invest in public goods. The U.S. government has prostituted itself to special interests, rather than governing with fairness and overall societal well-being.
Too bad Bernie calls himself socialist since that erroneous label turned off many moderates and otherwise progressives who rightfully don’t want government ownership of the means of production, even though they (including Buffet and other capitalists) generally support the social welfare goals that Bernie and others on the left espouse. Warren had the message right – use government to advance the population’s interests, not merely large corporations’ interests. After all, in an economy fueled by global trade, the adage that “What’s good for General Motors is good for America” no longer holds true.
For those who do not support Trump, the task at hand is to put Joe in office in November. Whether or not you personally believe Biden is the best candidate, he’s the weapon we have for fighting against the perils of Trumpism. Many progressives didn’t vote for Hilary four years ago, preferring not to vote at all or vote for a third party – a disaster that one hopes is not to be repeated.
By the way, there has been some good news recently in the capitalist markets. Investment in electric vehicles by the world’s leading auto companies is now so massive that there appears to be no turning back, whatever Trump attempts. Also, investment in renewable energy is exceeding that of fossil fuels. The Business Roundtable supports the notion that addressing employee, environmental, and community interests, not just shareholders, advances long term profits. Another three cheers for capitalism.
But four cheers for hopes of returning to an effective government that takes care of its people. Let’s all help move that along in whatever way we have at our disposal, starting with voting for Joe.